Congress Invitation: A Political Stunt Netanyahu Might Regret

Netanyahu will use the speech to boost his election campaign while helping his Republican allies undercut Obama's efforts to secure an agreement with Iran.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Netanyahu after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011.
Netanyahu after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

For the past month and a half – ever since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the early elections in Israel – the U.S. administration has been walking on eggshells. The instruction passed down from both the White House and from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was to avoid any action, statement or suggestion that might be construed as even the slightest intervention in the Israeli elections in favor of Netanyahu's political rivals, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

Yet this policy failed to impress Netanyahu and his Republican allies, who have, as of two weeks ago, absolute control over Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to repay their political debt to Netanyahu, intervene in the Israeli election in his favor and send him a third invitation to make a high-profile speech before both houses of Congress.

Boehner, McConnell and the other GOP leaders haven't forgotten that Netanyahu supported their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 campaign against Barack Obama. They also haven’t forgotten the royal welcome Netanyahu gave Romney in Jerusalem. They see Netanyahu as one of their own. Their kin. A conservative among conservatives. The Republican Senator from Jerusalem. The spirit of Sheldon Adelson – the patron of both Netanyahu and the Republicans – looms over this latest move, too. One can already predict that on February 11, the owner of the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Yisrael Hayom, a.k.a. 'Bibiton,' will be seated in the first row high in the guest seats in Congress.

It was these devious political tricks that the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud had in mind when they said, Ze nehene veze lo haser – which could be loosely translated as "everyone is satisfied" or a win-win situation. Netanyahu's invitation to speak before Congress is a massive political blow against his rivals – the Herzog's Zionist Camp on the left and Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi on the right – as well as a political attack on the White House's efforts to reach a historic nuclear agreement with Iran.

Netanyahu has been given a chance to strengthen his security agenda around which he is trying to build his campaign. 30 minutes of a polished speech on Iran, ISIS, Hamas, anti-Semitism and a second Holocaust, with countless applause breaks by parliament members of the world's most powerful superpower, could fortify his standing as the leader of the right in the race against Naftali Bennett.

In the U.S., Republicans in Congress have an opportunity to hurt Obama in the most important foreign policy issue the president will have to deal with in the rest of his term. Every word Netanyahu will say on the podium in Congress will be a finger in Obama's eye and will strengthen the Republican campaign for additional sanctions against the regime in Tehran and for the failure of the diplomatic negotiations with Iran.

The man who cooked up the idea was no other then Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer – perhaps the most political envoy Israel has ever had in the United States. Despite being a civil servant, Dermer has been in the past weeks engaged in forbidden election propaganda in the U.S. media in support of Netanyahu. The political stunt he conspired with the Republicans is a step up in the same direction.

A complaint about this matter, filed by lawmaker Issawi Freij (Meretz), has been sitting untouched for the past three weeks on the desks of Civil Service Commissioner Moshe Dayan and Civil Service Commission's disciplinary branch Assad Rosenberg. Despite the clear instructions distributed by the Civil Service to all government officials, forbidding them from taking part in any election propaganda, Dayan and Rosenberg are still examining whether Dermer's actions could be considered a disciplinary violation. One can only hope they will be able to reach a conclusion before the March 17 elections.

In the past six years the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president have had more than a few crises. But if every time it seems that the relationship between Netanyahu and the White House couldn't get any worse, Netanyahu proves that it can.

Still, Netanyahu might end up regretting the plot that he cooked up with the Republicans. The anger at the White House on Wednesday skyrocketed. When he comes to Washington, Netanyahu shouldn’t be surprised to find the gates of the White House closed to the Israeli prime minister – for the first time in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

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